Miraculously, we somehow made it onto the night bus to Bolivia after leaving it a *little* too late to order our taxi and having to run across the bus station carpark, with 18kgs on my back and another 7kg on my front (what do I actually have in there?) and I can safely say I do not want to practice running with my gear ever again.
A slightly uneven ground surface saw me take a tumble and my 6ft 5 travel buddy and personal body guard Aaron helped me up to keep us moving, as the weight made my life difficult as I attempted to pick myself up off the ground.
Checked in and ready to go, we approached the departure gate with a few minutes to spare. Not sure why I was the one to get picked on, but as we hadn’t realised we needed to pay a 1.30 sole departure tax (50c Australian), I was stopped at the gate while Aaron got through. My heart sank as I saw a massive line snaking its way around the terminal from the payment booth, but being business savvy I polished up my negotiating skills and found a nice looking lady who might have sympathy and let me push in. Win.
“Scoring” two seats together or at least we thought, our enthusiasm was quickly dampened when we realised both those seats were at the back of the bus right next to the toilet, exactly what you need on a fourteen hour overnight international bus journey!
But, truth be told it turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as several hours into the journey the six sole (A$2) local restaurant dinner I had eaten began to give me trouble, and I was soon leaping over Aaron as he slept to reach the bathroom in time. As he had been in the same position a day before due to some dodgy chicken, no dinner for him meant at least it was only me feeling slightly green. Thankfully for all involved, one trip to the bathroom was all it took and I slept like a baby until we arrived at the Bolivian border.
The border crossing was slightly manic to say the least, and not helped by the fact that our bus attendant seemed unphased to tell us what was going on, or if we needed to collect our bags and/or change buses. “Solamente Migración” and a gesture towards the other side was all we got, so after quickly changing our money we stamped out of Peru and walked on over to Bolivia, where the chaos ensued. No signage on the building and many people to navigate, finally we were given our entry forms, after being pushed past by many South Americans. Thankfully Aaron is not a small guy, and he deftly reaches over the top of the crowd and hands both our passports to the immigration officer. Due to a lack of staff working, by that time the queue had grown substantially and we joined the end, only to have old mate bus attendant chase us down and start yelling at us in Spanish. So of course I yelled back as it completely wasn’t our fault we were so far behind the rest of the group, a bit of a hand understanding the system wouldn’t have gone astray.
Finally we reach the immigration counter and after being asked to assist in translation, I smile, shake my head and pretend not to understand when the immigration officer tells me that Aaron’s passport is damaged and needs to be replaced. Somehow, he decides to let us through anyway, but we realise we are not the last to arrive back at the bus – a South African was having some visa issues that took quite some time to work out.
We are on our way again but we didn’t get far before our bus was surrounded by a big brass band and people drinking and dancing in the streets all in the name of a national holiday (it was 9am in the morning!) so again we were stuck, not much we could do but secretly wishing the driver would let us off for a quick look. No such luck.
Sixteen hours after we left Cusco we arrived in La Paz, the highest Capital City in the world at 3,600m. Walking up a steep hill from the bus station with my pack at altitude wasn’t so much fun, however!
On first sight, La Paz didn’t seem much different to Medellín Colombia, at least on the face of it. Down on the streets there is a different vibe, definitely more gritty with cheap market stalls everywhere and entire streets filled predominantly with one type of store (hairdressers, tour operators, alpaca wool and tourist shop vendors etc…). How they all make money I have absolutely no idea!
A Bolivian favourite Sunday afternoon activity is to watch the Cholitas wrestling, at a partially enclosed and completely freezing arena where no alcohol is allowed (!). It didn’t take long for us to be entertained and we soon discovered why the tourists sit in rows of chairs just behind the ring while the locals fill out a grandstand – bodies were thrown over the fence, soft drink shaken and used as a weapon, and locals were cheering or heckling as they threw whatever food they had in their hand towards the cholitas, who were spilling out of the ring towards the grandstand and sometimes even out the front door. The fight had no boundaries, and we were right in the thick of it!
The next day, having heard stories about him on the street, we paid an eccentric American gentleman called Crazy Dave a visit just outside the Carcel (jail) located right in the centre of town. The enterprising old fellow runs daily ‘information sessions’ about life inside the jail, from a former inmate’s eyes. According to popular belief, around 40% of what he says is true, and the rest changes daily. For sure the man is a good storyteller – although 100% certified insane – this is what drugs will do to your brain, kids…
Absolutely the one ‘not to be missed’ activity near La Paz is the day tour up to the aptly named ‘Death Road’, where one can hurtle down a narrow gravel road on a mountain bike, with a sheer cliff edge following your every move pretty much the whole of the 3600m descent down. Sounds fun hey? Absolutely!
The day begins with a practise ride down a sealed road for around 20km, making smooth racing turns down the road as the crosswind occasionally causes the front wheel to wobble. A short technical descent to avoid a tunnel cut into a mountain and we arrive at the regroup point, loading the bikes back onto the bus for the trip up to where the real fun begins.
It didn’t take long for me to find my confidence and get reacquainted with the bike, pushing my weight around to hold her steady on the gravel through the bumps and corners. It is hard to imagine that not so long ago this was the main road through the countryside, and even now is used by public buses on their way to the Amazon and Brazil. Our Mexican friend Silvia spent the day cruising the road on the bus, arguably a much more stressful way of experiencing the journey, especially when the driver sticks his head out the window to ensure the wheels are still aligned with firm ground!
There were lots of stops on the way down, allowing the group to remain together. The route was windy, with a few waterfalls and rock gardens, but it was not overly technical. I had fun on the speed humps at one point, which the guide had nicely mentioned in his briefing a few minutes before – landing to the cheers from a crew of workmen who were watching nearby. I don’t think they realised it was a girl until I went past 😉
Fortunately for me, my friends missed the night bus to Uyuni and we would all have another day to recover and leave together the next night. After a day suffering with fever in bed and attempting to see the doctor (I write about that *ahem* experience *here*), we settled into our bus cama (reclining seat for sleeping) for the ten hour journey down to see the magical Uyuni salt flats…
To be continued!